Why do we do what we do?


I find this letter a useful and interesting way of describing our present day relationship with our friends and colleagues in Malawi. When I read Jack and Mamie’s words from the 1920s, I find it hard to relate to their certainty about going off to Africa and sharing their Christian faith. To me in the 21st century, it seems too simplistic and imperialist. How did they know their way of life was right? However, they were loved by their Malawian friends and their memory and legacy lives on. I was mulling these things over one morning at my Quaker Meeting and I found this passage. It spoke to me and I share it here in case others find it interesting.

 After a lifetime of service to others, Douglas Smith, warden of Settle (Quaker) Meeting House, inherited a legacy which would have given him security and comfort in his old age. The following statement was left with his papers; at his request, it was published in 1981 after his death:

‘Much of our present affluence in Britain was built on the cheap labour, inadequate food, poor housing, poor medical and social services and almost non-existent education of the people of our former Empire. When they demanded their freedom, we cleared out, leaving them almost totally unfitted for stable self-government and without adequate capital to develop their own resources.

Every one of us in Britain, even the poorest, has reaped benefits of many kinds from the misery and poverty in our Empire. We are all deeply in debt. Governments, trade unions, politicians and churches have talked loud and long about justice and the brotherhood of mankind. We have handed over to them our personal responsibility to achieve these aims, but with tragic lack of success.

Now we must act; take new and revolutionary action at the level of our personal responsibility to give back to the world’s poor the wealth of which we have robbed them and are still robbing them. Unless we take our (Christian) responsibility for closing the gap between our comfort and their misery, we shall blunder deeper and deeper into world-wide disasters – and probably to self-destruction.

For fifty years these injustices have weighed on my conscience. Then in 1979 I acquired considerable wealth, and immediately I was faced inescapably with the (Christian) challenge to repay as much as possible of the wealth which Britain had taken from the world’s poor. I gave away almost all the money to charities and trusts working in the former British possessions. This brought me to the financial level of the old-age pensioner, but with no regret. The pension leaves us room for happiness, contentment and laughter. Compared with an Indian or African peasant, our pensioner is princely rich.

The personal responsibility which we hand over to governments, trade unions, committees and churches has failed to banish world poverty. I hope this statement will lead others to think deeply of their individual responsibility towards all the world’s problems and to take action now, sacrificially – guided by the (Christian) spirit of deep caring.’